Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Iyar 5763 - May 21, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

based on a true story by A. Harel

"Wait for me, my good little girl, O.K.? I'll be right back. I just want to... need to... Er... what did I want, little one?"

Grandpa Siberia scratched his forehead and adjusted his faded kipa absentmindedly.

"To send the letter," chirped Shlomit.

"Oh, yes, of course. The letter," he smiled brightly and broadly. He laid his bicycle down on the low grass while she settled herself on a flat rock nearby, smoothing out her cotton dress, hitching up her stockings and smiling at the grass.

Saba Siberia had just bought her a pair of new sandals, white, with three straps and buckles. She studied them from her new position and smiled at them, at their white whiteness, shiny newness! Her feet did not reach the ground but that made no difference! Nor did she care that Saba, who had moved away from the grass and towards the moshav's main street, was being swallowed up between the trees and she could no longer see him slipping the letter into the letter box.

Only when the gray-purple of twilight turned the white of her sandals into chocolate color, did she cast anxious glances all about, dropped a few tears of worry upon the silent grass, and bounded off the rock. Saba's bicycle glistened with dewdrops.

Where was he? Why hadn't he returned? Wait a moment... What time was it? Perhaps almost night. Yes, for sure; it was already dark. Had something happened to Saba?

Shlomit ran home. The trampled grass squirted green juice on the white lacquer of the new, very white sandals.


Saba forgets things, they tried to explain to the child.

"So what? So do I!" tears welled up. "Everyone forgets sometimes."

"Right, right," Abba stroked her short braid, "but Saba forgets everything, all the time. Even us, sometimes."

Shlomit wanted to protest, to deny it, but the reality was so obvious. They were right, she knew. It began with the trip on the bicycle, when he forgot where he was headed and why, and where he had to return. And it continued from then on.

Today, when she had returned from school and Saba had been sitting on the white wicker chair on the porch, his silvery white hair fluttering around his head like a crown, she had discerned a questioning look in his eyes.

She skipped up to the small porch, brimming with vitality.

"Hello," he smiled at her politely. "Who are you looking for? Are you lost, little girl?"

"Saba!" she had cried aloud, "it's me! Your Shlomit!"

"Ahhh," he murmured, firmly pressing down the straying payos behind his ears, which sprang mischievously forward again.

And then his eyes lit up with an intelligent spark. "Ah, Shlomiti! How are you, meidele? Where are you coming from?"

How she had wanted to cry. So badly, in fact, that she had run off to her room and had done just that, her schoolbag still anchored on her back.

It was difficult for her to get used to the new grandfather, a saba who looked at you like a stranger, a grandfather who asked for a pillow and blanket because he wished to take a nap on the porch -- and when you brought it, he would narrow his eyes into belligerent, angry slits.

"I'm bothering someone?" he would say hoarsely, "that you decided to put me to sleep?"

"But, Saba, you asked!" you would say with pain, and you could see that he had a hard time believing you.

He simply forgot, altogether, just like that. All the time, and everything.

He had his occasional moments when snatches of distant memories would return. They flashed through his aged brain like sparks leaping up from a flame, briefly illuminating the darkness, and fizzing out at once.

During these rare and precious moments, Saba would call out to whoever was close by, set him down and begin telling rapidly what he remembered. And when no one was around, he would call loudly in the direction of the house and summon Savta from her pots to listen.

"You understand," he would apologize, "I forget everything. Do you hear? I sometimes remember something that I wanted to tell someone so urgently, or that I needed, but my memory keeps on failing me. And then..." he would purse his lips and frown, "I feel so frustrated, so sad..."

And then, with a gentle motion, permeated with sadness, Saba would paste back his rebellious payos obediently behind his ears.


The strangest thing was that whenever that elusive flash of light would be sparked in his brain, it would illuminate the same corner. Always that selfsame corner. Precisely that very corner that was so full of darkness. Siberia.

The truth was that Siberia, or `Sibir', as he called it, appeared in most of his stories as the main character, like some witch that gave him no peace. He couldn't ignore it or forget it. It, she, determined what you ate, if anything at all. She was terribly stingy with everything that related to the subject. She determined the severity of punishments that you absorbed and always, but always, clamped her icy hand down upon you, with a frosty, icy-hearted generosity.

"Sibir," Saba used to say, "always gave you the feeling that the judges who exiled you to its prison did not really imagine that the punishment would be all that terrible."

Until Saba lost his memory, the stories about Siberia flowed from his mouth like his smiles. Every routine event in his simple moshavnik life seemed to remind him of `Sibir' until finally, he was called by that name: Saba Sibir.

When he heard himself being referred to like that, he would chuckle, turn pale and his lips would tremble with an effort to say something. He only succeeded in remaining silent, and would send a quivering stray hand unconsciously to the back of his ear, to anchor down his unruly hair. He never succeeded, to be sure. And then, with his mind still illuminated, he would dredge up some stories about Siberia from the murkiness of his beclouded memory. Sometimes, the stories were coupled with smiles, or tears, and then they would be intertwined with the daily matters of morning, yesterday and tomorrow.


School was over for the day.

She had hardly been able to make it to the fifth hour when she was finally able to sling her schoolbag unto her shoulder and fling her chair upside down onto her desk so that the janitor could sweep underneath. Fear and despair blurred her vision.

There had been the math class. Shlomit had rummaged around in her schoolbag. Where was her math notebook!

"Rubin!" the teacher had called, waving her eyeglasses with a sharp motion. This Mora Stella had imposed her reign of terror upon students for twenty-five years.

"Rubin! Where is your math book, Rubin!" Without her glasses, the teacher's eyes resembled two bolts of lightning blazing a trail of fire through a cloud.

"I for-got-it," Shlomit's voice squeaked.

"You forgot it! Again! That is not acceptible, Rubin! Today, your math book, tomorrow, the daily schedule. Last Wednesday, your pencil and the last semester, you forgot to bring back your report card signed! I'm still waiting for it, Rubin!" The class had no doubts about that.

The teacher's tone was very convincing. Her memory was infallible. She riveted the two lightning flashes of her eyes upon the soft misty cloud in front of her that began to release a gentle drizzle. Shlomit's chin quivered; her look became glazed and empty. Perhaps she was losing her memory? Perhaps what was happening to Saba was beginning to happen to her, as well? Her heart skipped a beat. What if she forgot the way home? And her name? What if she got lost?


She arrived home panting. Saba Sibir was sitting on the porch shaded by the trellised grapevine, on his rocking chair, dozing off, a book on his lap. His hair, overgrown lately, fluttered around his forehead and kipa.

Running, she pushed open the gate, skipped up the stairs and burst into the porch.

"Hey, little girl, I think you've made a mistake, no?" Saba Sibir looked down at her in surprise. "You've got the wrong address. What's your name?" He beamed pleasantly at her.

Saba woke up from his nap later in the afternoon. In the waning sun, he saw the girl standing opposite him, looking at him with trepidation.

"Why are you staring like that, Shlomiti, sweetie? Is something the matter?"

"Er... no, Saba. I was just thinking, you haven't had a haircut for the longest time. Are you letting your hair grow?"

He laughed and she heaved a sigh of relief.

"It's a good thing you reminded me. You're so right. I haven't had a haircut for a long time. I'll ask Savta to have the barber come and pay me a house call." He didn't take a chance of saying the barber's name because he wasn't sure what it was. As far as he could remember, it was Grisha. But Grisha sounded too much like Siberia, and he was here, now, in the moshav, with a picturesque background of a blooming garden and golden, Eretz Yisroel warmth on his back. Grisha was a name that belonged to Siberia, and here, that wicked witch's hand had failed to reach. He must have forgotten the barber's name.

Saba was silent. A light suddenly went on in his consciousness, like a corner streetlamp on a pathway in his darkened childhood. He wanted to take advantage of the magic of that moment.

"Would you like to hear a story, Shlomit? A story about a haircut?"

Shlomit loved his stories. "A new story, Saba?"

"Oh, no. A very old story."

She pulled up a chair. Saba Sibir took her hand into his and quickly ran down the memory lane before the streetlamp went out.


"I had nothing left! They took every single thing! Do you understand, little girl? Everything!"

Saba leaned towards her. His face was gloomy. She squinted and nodded, her legs swinging above the ground, a movement that made Saba stop for a moment, and then repeat, "Everything! Do you know what that means?" He didn't expect an answer, only attention.

"I was the happiest boy in the world," he waved his hands above his head.

"In the whole world? Wow!" her eyes grew round.

"No other boy in the world had a mother like mine. No mother ever loved her son like mine loved me."

His mouth quivered and his eyes glistened and Shlomit knew that very soon the latkes which Saba's mother used to make would roll off his tongue, along with the gingerbread men she made with her own hands, or the faces she created from every edible thing: potatoes, vegetable peels, strings of dough or of yarn. And the little doodles she used to scribble for him on small notepaper, their own private way of leaving messages for one another, making small requests, or as happy love-notes between mother and son. And the tzitzis garment she sewed for him, the embroidered kipa, the notebook she had bought for him, upon whose each page she had etched, with a fountain pen dipped in ink, the alef-beis, so that he could practice writing...

Saba inhaled. This part of the story he knew, he felt, she remembered. He raised his hands towards the vine that fluttered on the trellis above his head for a moment, then lowered them to the closely embroidered tablecloth with its brightly colored sunflowers and straightened out a fold.

"Are you listening?" She nodded.

"And then, sweetie, all that remained were my payos. A kipa and tzitzis would have been too conspicuous, but Mother was able to camouflage the payos behind my ears. She tamped them down, shortened them, thinned them out." Saba Sibir sighed. "My beautiful, curly payos. But it was our secret victory.

"And then, one day, I came home and couldn't find her. Only a small note, a doodle of a boy, roundfaced with payos, a large X drawn above it, alongside which she had written:

"Riddle: Why did Hashem create man with two ears (aside from to hear with)?"

Shlomit giggled. What a story! Saba laughed in his aged voice. He hadn't laughed like that for a long time, to tears. One big tear rolled down upon one of the embroidered sunflowers.

"So I guarded my small payos behind my ears. It was a miracle that I had these protruding ears of mine."

She studied them for the first time. They seemed O.K. to her. Just regular ears.

"They saved my payos. Even when I was drafted into the Russian army where they are very particular about closely cropped heads."

Saba touched one of his ears. "They saved me time and again. I was able to get away with the checkups. You see, I was very attached to my payos. They were all I had left. You understand?" his eyes begged. Shlomit nodded, her head leaning on the tablecloth, her chin surrounded by tiny sunflowers.

"I was comforted by them. Or, rather, they kept me connected to my mother's memory." Saba took a deep breath. "And then, one morning, a new officer came. Grisha, they called him. Grisha Potyomkin. And he was... ah..." Saba coughed, he must have inhaled too deeply.

"A brawny giant of a man. It took me more than a full glance to take in the entire breadth of his shoulders. His eyes were tiny, though, exceptionally tiny, Shlomit'ke, like two thin slits on a very big ball."

Shlomit was reminded of the balloon on which she had painted a face, but she didn't say anything so as not to interrupt Saba in the midst of his reminiscences. That might cause the streetlight to be extinguished along the pathway of his mind. She just nodded, combing his face intently with her eyes.

"`Soldier!'" boomed Grisha, or rather, Saba, imitating him. The scratchy old voice failed in its mimicry, but with a bit of imagination, you could reconstruct the original tone and power behind it.

"`Come here this instant, soldier!' he pointed to me with his truncheon. And the soldier stepped forward, out of the ranks of soldiers at attention. He swung my shoulders around, his eyes disappearing in the red square of his face.

"`Soldier!' he roared again, `what is that?'"

He ruffled one of the soldier's sidelocks which had been so artfully camouflaged behind his ear. Aside from turning white like a sheet, the soldier had also lost his power of speech.

"Answer me! What is that!" screamed Potyomkin again, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The soldier lowered his eyes to the ground. "This..."

"Remove your hat!" roared Potyomkin. The soldier removed it. "Talk!"

The soldier was unable to speak. All he saw was the little note his mother had left him on the day they took her away. A little scrap of paper with a caricature of a little boy's round face with payos, tears, and a downcast mouth like an overturned bowl. And above it, a big X. Grisha squinted with rage, but none of the soldiers on the lineup saw it. You had to stand almost directly in front of him in order to see the expression in those slitlike eyes. The soldier, however, that is, Saba Sibir, saw it.

"Go to the barber. Immediately!" ranted Grisha. "After that, report to the office."

He snorted, took a deep breath, and stated to no one in particular, "At ease, men. The lineup is over." And he waddled away.

The Jewish soldier continued to stand there. His hand reached up to his ear and pasted back the unruly lock anew. No one saw him go to the barber, not even the barber. And he didn't report to the office, either.

Perhaps he hoped the officer would forget. Perhaps he hoped for his transfer to another end of Siberia. Perhaps he had no hopes at all, only prayers.

But in the following lineup the next morning, Captain Grisha came straight to the point. No, he had not been transferred; nor had he forgotten.

Again, the raft of his shoulders floated around the narrow build of the Jewish soldier.

"Soldier!" he shouted. The entire lineup was able to see the spark of eyeballs from the slits on his face.

"Off to the court martial."

The soldier went off towards the office to the sound of Captain Grisha's hup-hupping the others in far more strenuous manoeuvers than usual.

Saba Sibir was sentenced to solitary confinement. Insubordination was the prime offense in the list of crimes read out to him. He paid no attention. Again and again, tears dripped from the illustration on the note which his mother had drawn for him.


"Solitary confinement in the Russian army in Siberia is..." Saba attempted to explain, and halted.

A slight frown appearing between his eyebrows momentarily held up the progress of his story. He decided to forego the explanation. Shlomit thought that he had forgotten what it was. He sighed from the depths of his chest, skipped over several instances in his account too dramatically charged, and resumed,

"Well, listen closely, Saba's darling,... That soldier was supposed to receive blows upon his hands..."

"On his hands? Why? Did they have honey jars there?" Shlomit wondered.

"Honey jars?"

"That you dip your fingers in to lick," she explained, "and then they have to smack you on the hand."

Saba Sibir laughed, but only briefly. To himself, he muttered, "Honey? No. All I did wrong was to guard my payos. Do you understand, sweetie?" he asked, his face pale. "I stuck them very tightly behind my ears. Real tight." He leaned towards her from across the table, but his eyes didn't see her at all.

"Very, very tight, I plastered them down. But the barber... brought... his razor blade... and in the end... succeeded in shaving them. Yes..." his voice became muffled.

"In the end, they succeeded. But how they had to struggle, and to beat me, in order to succeed."

His body weaved forwards and backwards in a kind of silent concentration, almost as if in prayer. He groaned, then turned silent.

The little girl studied him, waiting, hoping that the thread of his memory would not be severed. She skipped off the chair and unto the wooden floor, inadvertantly pulling along an embroidered thread of a sunflower. She stood behind his chair and caressed his payos, rearranging them ever so nicely in place.

"Here, Saba'le, don't be sad. See? They grew back!"

"Boruch Hashem! Boruch Hashem!" Saba nodded. "Some things do grow back anew. But there are other things that wither, like an uprooted plant."

She didn't understand those words, but since the rebellious silver-white earlocks kept becoming unruly and escaping from behind his ears, she labored to adhere them back into place, to curl them, organize them and to whisper in Saba's ear.

"So you had to let them cut the payos. So what? They would have grown back, in any case, and you wouldn't have been beaten..."

"Oh, Shlomit!" he was shocked. "Don't say that! It's not like a branch. It's not like a pony tail or a braid. It was my pair of payos! My own sacred payos! My Jewish image! The picture my mother had drawn for me..."

He buried his head in his hands and wept, wept aloud.

Savta burst out to the porch in a cumbersome run weighed down by age.

"Avrem'l, what happened? Avrem'l!" Blonde curls were kissing the silver-white of his disshevled hair. "Shlomit!" Savta demanded, "What did you do to Saba? He hasn't cried like that for thirty years!"

Suddenly, he stopped, controlled himself, and dried his eyes. He gently pushed away the clinging child, squinted a bit, breathed not too evenly, then said, "I'm sorry, little girl. You are familiar to me from somewhere... What's your name?"

Saba Sibir was very courteous.


"Oh! Were you frightened?" Savta smiled, her frown softening. "Nothing happened."

Nothing happened. Shlomit skittered backwards and the light, the light down the pathway was extinguished.

A burning smell came from the kitchen.

"Oh, the French fries are burning!" Savta struck herself on the forehead and hurried inside. Saba's face exuded confusion. Shlomit gave him another glance. The sidelock behind his right ear had sprung out, in spite of her energetic efforts, but she dared not touch it now.

Saba did not recognize her now. Common courtesy would not let a girl, just any little girl, even pat the hand of an old grandfather sitting on his porch opposite the garden in the gathering twilight. With tiny steps she turned away and followed her grandmother into the kitchen.

"Savta," she said emotionally, "have you heard Saba's story about his payos?"

"What did you say, sweetie? A story? I don't remember. Oh, look how everything is burnt here... I don't remember, zeeskeit, but what do you think? Saba needs a haircut, doesn't he?" Savta turned over the fries that had been scorched. They crackled at the contact with the bubbling oil. She took a slitted spatula from the cutlery holder on the sink and attacked them from a different angle, gathered them up and laid them on a paper towel. She took a fresh handful from a heap waiting in a glass bowl and slid them into the pot. The oil sizzled and sprayed some drops on her hand.

"Oooh! I've gone and burned myself. Move away, Shlomiti, don't get in my way. I must finish this," she said without turning her head. "I don't want you to get burned, also. It's very dangerous to stand by boiling oil."

Shlomit moved back. What a marvelous smell! The smell of supper by Savta!

All of her friends got a supper of bread with jam or chocolate spread. Perhaps an omlette with salad, at best. But by Savta... And she was so hungry!

She quickly washed her hands and went to the table. The story about the payos was buried deep in her head. The pile of golden fries with the bottle of ketchup by their side had swallowed up the lamplight on the narrow pathway, like a white neon light engulfing the weak glow of a candle in its brightness.


The following day, Savta called up Yitzchak the barber.

The answering machine announced a message in a dry tone, and informed one and all that the barber had gone away for a two- week vacation. For urgent cases, one could contact an excellent barber by the name of Chazan, whose number was...

Savta decided that the matter was, indeed, urgent, especially since she had made up her mind about it, and a person should always honor their own decisions. She called up Mr. Chazan, the barber, and made an appointment for a house visit for the following afternoon.


"Here's your client," Savta pointed to Saba Sibir who was sitting on the porch, staring into the defined horizon of the rose and myrtle bushes in the garden. "He needs a real haircut. He hasn't had one for the longest time," she smiled.

"No problem, lady," replied the man with a heavy Russian accent, and began unpacking his equipment on the small porch table. "I'll give him a close crop just like a Russian soldier!" he chuckled. He had a sense of humor besides his mustache, and the old man seated on the wicker chair reminded him of his own grandfather. Chazan took a liking to him at once. He would give this grandpa the best haircut he knew how.

"Your Hebrew is not bad!" said Savta. "How long are you here in Israel?"

"Oh, I here in Israel only eight months. I little know Hebrew. Israel. Jews. Now communism go kaput. I coming to Israel."

"Very good!" Savta praised him and glanced at her watch. "I must hop over to the vegetable store before he closes. My granddaughter is coming back soon from school and I promised to make her some French fries for lunch."

The barber nodded even though he couldn't quite keep up with her fluent grandmotherly Hebrew. He laid a sharpened electric clipper and scissors out on the table, near a small potted plant of a Wandering Jew.

"Good, then... What did you say your name was?"

"Gershon. Gershon Chazan," smiled the barber. "But you can call me Grisha."

"Hunh?" Saba Sibir lifted his eyes.

"Avrem'l, the barber is here. I am going to the vegetable store. I'm out of potatoes. Shlomit is coming soon." Basket in hand, the last words were said mainly to herself because she had already crossed through the garden and disappeared behind the myrtle bushes.

When she was picking through the pile of potatoes, she was sorry she hadn't told Grisha that Saba Sibir understood Russian and that they could shmoos together. Even more, how could she have forgotten to tell him that her Avrem'l had truly been a soldier in the Russian army... Ay- yay-yay!

"Hello, Mister," the barber bent over his client's thin shoulder.

The old man murmured something indistinct. He's senile, poor fellow, Grisha noted to himself.

"I'm your barber, Mister, and I will soon make you a really fine haircut. Just like a soldier! Good?" he slapped the elderly shoulder familiarly.

"Eh?" asked the old man, his eyes squinting.


Today, Shlomit was sad. The story Saba had told her the day before was a sad one, and the speed with which she had forgotten it made her even sadder. She clearly remembered the exact number of French fries that had been heaped on her plate. And that was the saddest part of it all!

Now, as she was walking with her schoolbag on her back towards her grandparents, she was ashamed for having extorted from Savta a promise for some French fries for lunch. She felt a sour taste in her mouth.

She could already see the vine climbing up the porch trellis. There was Saba's white head, strangely uncovered, peeping out, and a strange man standing by and... Oh! The barber! The barber that Savta had ordered! Where was Savta? Not in sight.

Suddenly, she lifted her feet and began running. Something was burning in her heart. The barber! The barber!

She reached the gate and r-a-n, r-a-n swiftly up the path. "WAIT! ONE MINUTE! WAIT!" She leaped up the two stairs and straight unto the porch. Oh, but... but...

At the foot of Saba's chair, all around the feet of the barber who had shorn the small, white head in extraordinary fashion, rested locks upon locks of Saba Sibir's sparse hair.

"The payos!" screamed the girl. "The payos!"

"What did you do to my Saba's payos!" she sobbed, the schoolbag on her shoulders quivering.

"Payis, what payis?" Grisha echoed in alarm. "I Hebrew not know good. No cry, little girl. Tell Grisha. What is payis?" he stood with the electric clipper humming, bewildered to tears.

"What will we say to Saba?" she wailed. "What will we say happened to his mother's payos?"

"Little girl," he begged, "stop to cry, please!"

But Shlomit couldn't.

Saba Sibir turned around to look, his face suddenly so alarmingly small, his ears protruding much more than ever, so exposed.

"Why are you crying, maidele?" he asked gently. "Don't cry. Come and tell the good uncle what's bothering you. What's your name. Hush, now, hush!"

The crying increased.

Saba Sibir's eyes filled with tears. "Don't cry, little girl. I'll help you. Are you lost? Hmmm, would you like a drink of water? Juice? Did you lose something dear?"

The iron gate grated.

Saba was filled with a beclouded sense of hope. The barber's relief was actual.

The girl continued to shake with sobs.

"Come here, my sweet one, come here. Enough," he pulled her to him, patted her hand tenderly, wiped away her tears like a grandfather comforting his granddaughter, hugging her.

Savta arrived, her basket full of potatoes.


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